Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna talks with Pope Francis during a meeting with Austrian bishops at the Vatican Jan. 30. CNS photo/Courtesy of L'Osservatore Romano, Reuters

Mercy for families

  • April 14, 2016

Perhaps Cardinal Christoph Schonborn best summarizes Pope Francis’ papal exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love): “There are true innovations, but no break” in tradition, the Austrian theologian told reporters the day the exhortation was released.

It was never likely that the Pope would soften Catholic doctrine, particularly surrounding marriage and divorce. Instead, the Pope, as is his way, settled on what is becoming the main tenet of this papacy: mercy.

“I understand those who prefer a more rigourous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion,“ the Pope writes in Amoris Laetitia. “But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”

The Pope should be commended for convening Synods in 2014 and 2015 that encouraged open and sweeping dialogue on many difficult topics and then, after considering entreaties from more than 250 bishops and cardinals, issuing a document that is true to Church teaching. For let us be clear: there is nothing in this document that the Church has not already said, loudly and clearly. What it tells the world is that the Church is open to all, a welcoming presence for all its members, no matter their imperfections.

The Synods were not easy days for the Church. There was considerable and, at times, rancourous disagreement between the bishops that far too often spilled out of the synod hall and into the media.

This led to suggestions that a progressive Pope in the Year of Mercy would ultimately propose the Church adopt more inclusive language, if not outright change, on several contentious issues, including communion for divorced and remarried couples, common-law relationships and same-sex unions. But those issues turned out to be secondary concerns in a final document that focused primarily on the many critical social, cultural and spiritual struggles families encounter and which the Pope had encouraged his bishops to address.

Overall, Amoris Laetitia is an admirable pastoral guide that explores vital topics affecting family life. During the back and forth of the two Synods, there appeared a danger that these vital topics would be drowned out by the rhetoric surrounding a few headline-grabbing issues. But Francis prudently issued a document that, for the most part, addressed the most common and more vital dilemmas of modern family life. Many families the world over are in crisis and in urgent need of help, encouragement and mercy.

The Church, Francis believes, has in the past offered too much judgment and too little compassion. He has spoken often of what he calls “wounded families.” Finding ways to heal those wounds is largely what prompted him to convene two Synods and, ultimately, to issue the pastoral guide embodied by Amoris Laetitia.

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